How many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free?
— Bob Dylan
If we pay close enough attention, life has a way of giving us what we need to overcome some of our inequities.
Through the first 14 years or so of my life, I looked on people of color — anyone who wasn’t of a similar skin hue as my own — as an inferior being. Understand, I was simply mirroring the lessons of life that I’d been taught, mired in the bigotry that had been handed down in my family for generations.
I can’t remember specifically, but I know I was in my tweens before I was told that use of the n-word was offensive. Prejudice, I would later discover, is a byproduct of ignorance and, like my parents before me, I based my reaction to black people on misinformation that had been drilled into me since birth.
But I learned a lesson that would make me question that hurtful dogma as a 15-year-old innocent at, of all places, summer football camp.
As a skinny, scared 120-pounder, I was certainly in no danger of replacing anyone on the depth chart at Irwin County High School, then one of the traditional powerhouse football programs in the state. I tried to learn as much as I could without angering any of the upperclassmen, who traditionally took great delight in torturing the underclassmen among them.
One of the most memorable elements of that football camp, held at South Georgia College in Douglas, was watching some really amazing athletes show off their skills. One in particular stood out.
His name was Charles, and his ebony skin covered rippling muscles that made him an almost unblockable terror on the defensive line. And despite his impressive size, Charles was easily one of the three fastest athletes at the ICHS camp on a team that was loaded with exceptional athletes.
I happened to be in the dorms one evening when I saw a group of upperclassmen — athletes I was actually in awe of even as I sought to be one of their teammates — burst out of a room, laughing uproariously. I tried to shrink into the wall until they’d gone their way, wary that they might turn their wrath on me, and when they went off in the other direction I walked past the room the group had come out of.
I looked in the room and was stunned at what I saw.
Sitting on the bed, staring straight ahead, was Charles. I did a double-take when I noticed tears running down his cheeks.
I tentatively walked into the room and asked this amazing athlete, so intimidating and stoic a presence on the football field, if he was OK. He only stared straight ahead, the tears — tears of anger, it turned out — coming in a steady stream. Uncomfortable in the silence, I started to walk out.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, and his words were filled with a pain that moved me. I remained silent, and Charles turned his gaze on me. I was afraid he might see my presence as an intrusion, and I started easing out of the room. He surprised me by saying, “Come on in, man, and shut that door.”
I was almost as afraid as I was curious, but curiosity won out, and I went into the room, closing the door behind me. I stood there, tentative and embarrassed, and waited. After a while Charles started talking.
“My grandma told me if I was going to play football, I had to listen to the coaches and do what I was told,” he said. “She also told me not to expect things to be fair, but that I could not let my temper get the best of me no matter what happened.”
I didn’t respond.
“Those rednecks who came in here have been after me since summer practice started,” he continued. “They have their place on the team, and I think they’re scared I’m going to beat out one of their buddies, so they’ve been picking at me, trying to start something. And they always do it when there’s a group of them.
“You notice how they always call me ‘Charlie boy’ when they’re talking to me? They’ve figured out that that drives me crazy.”
In my naivete, I asked him what was so bad about being called what I figured was a dirivitive of his name. Charles stared at me for a long moment, and I started to squirm. Finally, he said, “You really don’t know, do you?”
Over the next hour or so, Charles explained to me why our teammates’ words hurt him. He explained the hardships he and his family had gone through simply because they had dark skin. He gave me a civil rights tutorial more compelling than anything I ever heard in a classroom or read in a book.
When I got up to walk out of the room, I got the feeling Charles was embarrassed to have shared his thoughts with me. I’m sure he wondered if I, a virtual stranger, would share them with others on the team. I was too confused to really comment at that time, and we just kind of nodded at each other as I left the room.
But in the days and weeks and months that followed, I started noticing little things that hadn’t registered with me before. Inspired by Charles’ words, I also started talking openly about race with black teammates and classmates who were more my age. And at a time and in a place where it was considered heresy, I gradually came to realize that all that stuff I’d been taught over the years was wrong.
I only wish some people, many of whom are now in positions of prominence, had had their own chance meeting with someone like Charles along the way.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.